Cities by night
“The night is tonight,
or any night.”
Voiceover at the beginning of Night and the City (1950), directed by Jules Dassin
You can bet that within days of the daguerreotype becoming public in 1839, someone mounted a camera on a tripod and tried to take a view of Paris by night. We will never see the results of that because it was guaranteed to turn out a failure. The exposure time would have been nearly impossible to calculate but it could have run into the hours, and one reason for that was because in 1839, Paris, like every other city in the world, was not lit above street level. All those 19th century images of Montmartre pavements lined with nightclubs come from much later. There are accounts from the 1880s and 1890s, when electric lighting first appeared, of near miraculous revelations when for the first time people could see the city lit at night above pavement level. It was as though a veil had been lifted. There was a whole world of architecture above them they had never seen before. Well, they probably had. When thunderstorms crossed the city and lightning streaked across the sky they caught glimpses of it. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how young opiated poets in their garrets could look out at that scene and be overcome by a great philosophical terror.
At 9:30 pm on June 6, 1904 Fred Judge took this photo from the harbour at Hastings. According to the azimuth for that year, the sun had set about an hour and ten minutes earlier. It became one of his earliest postcards and also one of his most popular. He would later estimates sales around the 10 000 mark. He would also produce another version a year or so later that was printed darker and with the lights coming from the windows at the right burnt out. This however is the one that matters. In 1904 most photographers, let alone mere viewers of photography would have found a scene like this technically difficult. The exposure settings were too variable to capture that precise moment when the lightning arced across the sky and illuminated the wharf. Judge probably took several exposures during the stormand this was the one that worked best. It is a perfect composition, taken with the rule of thirds in mind so wharf, sea and sky occupy roughly equal space. Even the position of the gas lamp under the lightning and the interruption of the railings at the bottom look like details he had visualised before pressing the shutter. No doubt this is a scene that generations of Hastings residents had witnessed every summer but never been able to capture. It does not express the power or the terror of nature so much as our endless curiosity about it.
When it comes to postcards of city streets at night, Fred Judge was the master of the form in the early years of the medium. Others produced postcards of cities at night in the 1910s but no one captured the shadowy atmosphere better. His very first London postcard, taken in 1909, was a night view. As was his second and third; this one. I don’t know how familiar he was with London but my guess is he had read enough Sherlock Holmes stories to get excited by the shadows and fog. In 1924 Judge would publish a book; Camera Pictures of London by Night. The images are much more vivid and also Pictorialist, what we might call ‘late Pictorialist’; a term guaranteed to frighten off the photo historians who categorize Pictorialism among that long list of 19th century English mistakes that include eugenics and the sundry King Georges. I must say, having read his introduction to the book and looked at the photos, he was a great photographer and a terrible writer, but the point here is that we have an image many photo-historians would classify as proto-modernist. In fact, we would say that for a lot of his postcards. He likes the shapes and patterns created by the night. In some the scene is taken up by a looming silhouette that is only just defined.
I’m stuck for identifying the exact process used in this card. I used to assume any intensely blue photograph was a cyanotype and when I became aware that there were several other possibilities I also realized I didn’t have the time to track all of them down. I know there was a process called Delft Blue Toning, which I assume was selenium based. Does it matter? Only as a point of personal pride. I have one other very similar to this in appearance that was taken for the Exposition des Artes Decoratifs in 1925, so I am assuming this is contemporaneous. In 1922 young Georges Simenon arrived in Paris set on becoming a writer (though according to his more tiresome boasts, he had other things on his mind). He is credited with somewhere in the vicinity of 300 (plus) novels, but in effect he probably wrote five and recycled their themes and motifs ad nauseum. This is a scene straight out of one of them. Imagine a drab office clerk standing across from the Olympia one evening in 1925 and deciding, sur l’impulsion as it were, to just throw off his present, very ordinary life, walk into the Olympia, strike up a conversation with a young coquette and see where that takes him. Months later his bloated corpse is dragged out of the Seine but, Mon Dieu, what a story it has to tell.
Let’s leave Europe and head to Reno, circa 1940s, where the city never sleeps. Having spent some years researching the Nevada Photo Service, I would like to say this looks like one of Lawrence Engel’s but since he put a form of company signature on most of his and it isn’t here I can’t. We can say it is post-1931; the year Nevada legalized gambling. There is a stark difference between street scenes pre and post 1931, mostly to do with the proliferation of neon. But the date doesn’t matter so much as the enchantment of this card. It beckons you in to Reno. Never mind that tomorrow morning your wallet will be empty and your self-respect will be shot to pieces; tonight, everything you want is here.
Another image that could come from the Nevada Photo Service, yet cannot. The Doghouse, Harold’s, the Bank, the Palace: there is too much for one person to take in one night, which is of course our photographer’s point. In the 1930s Walker Evans took a photo like this that has rightfully been recognized as significant in his canon yet as images like this show, others had the same ideas. Well, that’s one of the great things about photography: there are no geniuses but there are people who see things more clearly and there are others who look at them the same way. Today downtown Reno is a travesty; the glamour at street level this photographer drew from has largely disappeared and what little remains has been overwhelmed by monolithic hotels. The enduring image is of dozens of military veterans standing at the one-arm bandits for hours on end. America packs them off to Iraq, then it sends them down to Reno. A decent oncologist would advise the country to stop eating its own shit. But another resilient image comes when you leave North Virginia St, look one way to the Sierra Nevada and another towards the desert and realize there aren’t many cities more perfectly sited. Depressing as downtown might be today, a big part of Reno’s allure in the past was the journey out to it, across the mountains or through the desert, arriving at a fabulous oasis, a pleasure garden where there was too much fun and no time for sleeping.
To Pendleton, Oregon, which depending on your criteria is either a city or a town, best known for its annual rodeo. The point this photo demonstrates is that viewed the right way at night it can look as exciting as any capital on the eastern seaboard. If someone in Hollywood had rewritten Dassin’s Night and the City and set it in Pendleton, this could be the opening scene. In a few seconds we’ll see Harry Fabian running out of the cinema and glancing anxiously behind. For that matter it could just about be a still from Orson Welles famous opening scene in Touch of Evil. Pendleton might be small but once the sun goes down it packs in a lot of action.
A snapshot taken at the 1933 Century of Progress Expo in Chicago. The tower at the right would be part of the skyride. The lights emanating out of it are attached to the cables. Like a lot of expo architecture the world over, it was considered a marvel of technology but once the fair was over it was dismantled. There is no reason to think this isn’t an amateur photo though it’s worth noting that apart from one detail in the middle foreground that could be a person running the place looks deserted. Possibly it was taken by a worker before the fair officially opened. Like every other photo here (excepting possibly the top one, which is a negative print of a map) it shows how the whole appearance and atmosphere of a place changes at night. It becomes somewhere else.
|NIGHT AND THE CITY|